Best of 2010
Slide show: Duran Duran, OK Go, Big Boi and 18 of our favorite musical innovators and writers share their picks
John Taylor of Duran Duran
Janelle Monae, "Dance or Die"
Hitting me like Q-Tip’s “Groove and Stop” on amphetamines, Janelle Monae’s “Dance or Die” was the most powerful dose of audio antidepressant I came across this year — guaranteed to lift those workaday blues and great to cook to. It turned me into a dancing fool whenever or wherever I heard it. Why wasn’t it a single?
John Taylor is the bassist for Duran Duran. Their latest album, “All You Need is Now,” was released digitally on Dec. 21 and will be available on CD and LP in February.
Spoon, "No Time"
Spoon played this song in Las Vegas at the Matador at 21 Festival, as a tribute to their friend, the late indie rocker Jay Reatard. They’d covered it a few times already, on the tour for their excellent 2010 album *Transference*, but it was new to me. I must have heard the original version before on one of the Jay Reatard albums I bought, but I never noticed it, and I’d forgotten the artist by the time he died last January. But Spoon turn the skeletal guitar ditty into a real rock & roll song, with Britt Daniel singing about teen angst (“Locked inside this glass house / Looking out the window for you”) with adult muscle in his voice.
The way Spoon play it, “No Time” is about a bad mood, a mood that means nothing and will eventually diffuse into some other kind of mood, nothing to get worked up about — but it still hurts anyway. Britt Daniel doesn’t sentimentalize the bleakness of “No Time,” and he doesn’t condescend to it by pretending he can relate. All he does is rescue a forgotten song and give it a home.
Rob Sheffield is a columnist for Rolling Stone and the author of the national bestseller “Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time.” His most recent book is “Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man’s Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut.”
The Hundred in the Hands, "Dressed in Dresden"
One of the records that I really could not stop listening to this year was the Hundred in the Hands’ self-titled album. I first heard about them in 2009 after I met Richard X, who produced part of their album. To be honest it’s difficult for me to pick out one particular song of theirs, because I really love the whole thing, but “Dressed in Dresden” is definitely one of my favorites. The production is great — simple, energetic, and I love Eleanore Everdell’s vocals. I hope that I get to see them live next year.
Annie is currently at work on a follow-up to last year’s “Don’t Stop” (Smalltown Supersound).
Cee-Lo Green, "Fuck You"
I was a fan of Cee-Lo’s “F*ck You” literally as soon as I heard the song … everyone can relate to it, one way or another. And he’s one of my fellow Dungeon Family so I’m always happy to see us represent.
Big Boi’s debut “Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty” (Def Jam) was released this year.
Brian Fallon of the Gaslight Anthem
The National, "Bloodbuzz Ohio"
This year, the one single song I heard that really took me back a step and made me not only consider how I write, but how music is written in general, was a song by the National called “Bloodbuzz Ohio.” I’ve spent many nights listening to this song over and over trying to pick apart how what seems to be a simple song has layer upon layer of precisely placed melody and instrumentation. I think this is going to be one of the bands people will look at 20 years from now as defining part of the sound of this generation, and, more so, the feel of this generation. It’s uncertain and shaken in its core. There really isn’t a more true statement in 2010 than, “The floors are falling out from everybody I know, I’m on a Blood … Buzz … yes, I am.”
Brian Fallon is the lead singer and guitarist for the Gaslight Anthem. The band’s third record, “American Slang,” was released this year on SideOneDummy.
Chris Funk of the Decemberists
Deerhunter, "Desire Lines"
When I first heard this song, I was instantly transported back to my early high school days when I’d hop the train into Chicago from Indiana and find my way down to Clark Street. The rebirth of hippie hadn’t become cool yet and punk was sort of out, a slightly confused time if you were looking to join a “cool club.” It was during this time that I would frequent the Metro where I saw My Bloody Valentine, Tones on Tail, Jesus and Mary Chain, This Mortal Coil, and somehow this song fits right in that era.
Chris Funk is the guitarist for the Decemberists. Their sixth record, “The King Is Dead,” will be released in January on Capitol.
Gregg Gillis (aka Girl Talk)
Waka Flocka Flame, "Hard in Da Paint"
2010 was heavy for rap. There were so many anthems. But this took it over the top. The beat bangs harder than anything I’ve heard in a long time. It’s evil. The production was the perfect fit for Waka Flocka’s wildly aggressive flow.
Girl Talk’s fifth album, “All Day” (Illegal Art), was released in November.
Sharon Van Etten, "Save Yourself"
This album and song took me by surprise, but this song lives up to the album’s title, a restrained five-minute epic that captures resigned dignity and shared blame in the face of impending desolation. The verses and chorus melodies spiral down in a satisfying way as steel guitar decorates the background. “Shit, get real,” indeed.
Mac McCaughan is the co-founder of Merge Records and the lead singer and guitarist for Superchunk, whose latest album, “Majesty Shredding” — their first in nine years — was released in September.
Tim Nordwind of OK Go
Io Echo, "When the Lilies Die"
Io Echo’s song “When The Lilies Die” blew my mind to bits in 2010. In this beautifully haunting but upbeat Fantasia-like sonic universe, Io Echo plays with the tension between wanting, almost clawing to hold onto the nostalgia of yesteryear, while at the same time desperately trying to find optimism in an uncertain future. Sadness and pain are celebrated as a part of what it means to be alive — suggesting that maybe if you walk through the pain, you’ll get to a better place, reminding us all to find beauty and happiness where you can, even in scary places.
Tim Nordwind is the bassist for Ok Go, who released their third album, “Of the Blue Colour of the Sky,” on Capitol this year.
Train, "Hey, Soul Sister," and Lady Gaga, "Bad Romance"
Starting in the spring and running through the year on the radio, my twin thrills were Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister.” I never got tired of the delirious swirl of the fan singing to the pop star on his screen from the first moment of his song to the last, or the way a woman’s cool-on-cool sexual tease suddenly turns desperate and wild in the last minute of hers. I loved the self-confidence in the randomness of the words in both — “Hey, soul sister / Ain’t that Mister Mister on the radio / The way you move ain’t fair you know” puts cut-up lyrics to shame, and the final chant of “Bad Romance” is pop genius if anything is.
Greil Marcus is the author of this fall’s “Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010,” and many other books, including “When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison.”
Derek Miller of Sleigh Bells
Nicki Minaj, "I'm the Best" (Runner-up: Hot Chip, "Take It In")
There are other songs I’ve spent more time with, but lately this one is winning. Despite the boasts, I get the feeling Nicki thinks the whole world is against her. She is constantly on the defense. I guess this comes with every great “hope,” from pop singers to NFL players … the questioning, the constant doubt, the failure forecasts from everyone watching. So kicking the record off with a track like this makes perfect sense. Lyrically, it’s your typical underdog stuff, but it completely avoids being boring. In fact, it rules. The last 25 seconds are my favorite … when she whispers the lyric over the melody. So good. Runner-up: Hot Chip, “Take It In”
Derek Miller is the guitarist and principal songwriter for Sleigh Bells. The duo’s debut album, “Treats,” was released this year on Mom & Pop.
Alex Naidus of the Pains of Being Pure at Heart
There isn’t much contextual heft to why this would be a “No. 1 song of the year” — but it’s certainly the one I’ve listened to most. “One” is an irresistible bit of electro-pop sung by a (relatively) unknown teenage fashionista, produced by Bloodshy & Avant (the masterminds behind Britney’s “Toxic” and their own masked project Miike Snow). It’s a delirious swirl of arpeggiated synths and chopped, repetitious (really repetitious) vocals. On paper, “One” seems like a pretty standard post-Robyn piece of robotic synth-pop, but since it cuts out all the chaff, it’s pretty much an immediate, seemingly unending fun spiral. I’m obsessed.
Alex Naidus plays bass for the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. The band’s second studio album, “Belong,” will be released in March on Slumberland.
Frankie Rose and the Outs, "Little Brown Haired Girls"
I can’t listen to music when I write. This means that during the final two years of writing my book, I hardly listened to anything at all. Then this summer Stereogum posted Frankie Rose and the Outs playing “Little Brown Haired Girls,” and I felt like my brain was a tomb being aired out for the first time in 2,000 years. There’s nothing extraneous in “Girls”; it simply explodes over and over in fiestas of balls-out exuberance, then pulls back so each new verse feels like a revelation. Frankie and Co. nail this incredible dream-pop/garage sound, a gauzy shawl of distortion and reverb around a core of driving determination, crowned with a gooey, oozing layer cake of vocals encrusted in spun-sugar fuzz. It barreled a path clear through my
head and let the sun shine in.
Sara Marcus is a musician who has played with, among others, Mirah and Oakley Hall, and the author of this year’s “Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution.”
Christopher Owens of Girls
Kurt Vile and the Violators, "In My Time"
Of all the wonderful music I heard last year, it’s definitely hard to pick just one favorite song of 2010. If I had to just pick the song that spoke to me the most personally, it’s “In My Time” by Kurt Vile and the Violators. The lyrics touch me on a personal level and are very relatable. The bright production is a fresh departure for Kurt and the band; it’s confident and tasteful in a less-is-more kind of way; that guitar solo in it is right up my alley, and frankly I’m surprised that this song didn’t make a bigger splash. All the same, it was and is my favorite song of 2010.
Christopher Owens is the lead singer and guitarist for Girls. Their EP, “Broken Dreams Club,” was released in November on True Panther Sounds.
Anika, "Yang Yang" (Yoko Ono cover)
The song that blew my mind in 2010 was Anika’s cover of Yoko Ono’s “Yang Yang.” Picking up the record randomly at Rough Trade, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but after my first listen to the first track, “Terry,” I was ready to buy. Then as I listened further I fell into the second track (as all records should make you do). “Yang Yang” is dirty 2010 post-punk. It is distortion, reverb, electronic, dub and rhythm that could break down at any minute. Fragile.
I would choose the Women song called “Eyesore” off of their record “Public Strain.” I actually got to hear it around six months before it got released, and it’s stayed with me ever since. There’s a certain kind of sadness and desperation from it as you’re listening, but you still want to hear it again right after it’s over — particularly the ending. The song builds and then waits until the end to pull at your heartstrings. The lyrics are abstract and beautifully poetic. The guitar work is simplistic, but not simple. The vocal line is melodic and yet sturdy. The drums chug along hypnotically. The song feels timeless.
Marnie Stern’s third self-titled album was released on Kill Rock Stars in October.
DJ Franki Chan
LCD Soundsystem, "You Wanted a Hit"
The new LCD album is my favorite of 2010, but this song especially stands out as a work of brilliance. It’s 9-plus minutes long, with a straightforward beat and simple construction and yet it leaves you wanting more. I love the ease with which it starts — and then they give each movement ample room to breathe. The lyrics are fun, witty and end up being ironic, since the song is about not writing a hit, when it clearly is.
Gil Scott-Heron, "Me & the Devil Blues"
Never mind 2010, this may be the most astonishing song I’ve ever heard. Gil Scott-Heron isn’t covering Robert Johnson. He’s writing an entirely new song, about the modern plight of poor people in this country’s vast inner cities, about the ancient ruinous temptations that live beneath the high-gloss platitudes of hip hop. You can hear it in his voice, which is deep and somber and battered beyond repair. This isn’t a fairy tale. It’s a nightmare. And an autobiography. After years of writing about the ravages of addiction in songs such as “The Bottle” and “Angel Dust,” Scott-Heron was himself arrested for cocaine possession and sent to Riker’s Island. Most observers had given him up for dead. If there’s any justice in the world of music — and there isn’t, but just indulge me — this haunting recording will cement Scott-Heron’s reputation as our country’s greatest unsung prophet.
Steve Almond is a contributor to Salon and the author of “Candyfreak” and “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life,” which was released this year.
Cee-Lo Green, "Fuck You"
Great songs leap out of the speaker. That is exactly what happened when I heard the soulful debut single from Cee-Lo, the engaging track “Fuck You” off his latest full-length “The Lady Killer.” The track moves like vintage Motown at its best, with Cee-Lo’s singular vocal stylings and a colorful vocabulary that quite frankly could make the phone book sound hit-worthy.
Hanson’s latest studio album, “Shout it Out,” was released in June on their own 3CG Records.
Nathan Williams of Wavves
Kanye West, "So Appalled"
My favorite song of the year would have to be Kanye West’s “So Appalled,” and not just for the guest verses (although I wish RZA had more of a stamp on it and Jay-Z has one of his best verses of the year, “fuckin insane/ what the fuck am i sayin’/ not only am i fly/ i’m fuckin’ not playin’!”). The production on it is so dark and triumphant at the same time.
Nathan Williams is the lead singer and guitarist for Wavves, whose third LP, “King of the Beach” (Fat Possum), was released earlier this year.
Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen
The Oh Sees, "I was Denied"
My favorite song of 2010 is “I was Denied” by The Oh Sees. It’s on their record “Warm Slime.” I saw them play live at the South Street Seaport over the summer and bought the record. It’s an upbeat rocker with a pretty sweet riff. I like their slow songs the best, but they sure can rock!
Hamilton Leithauser is a singer and guitarist with The Walkmen. Their most recent album is “Lisbon”.